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The difficulties of predicting future threats

Mark Urban | 19:40 UK time, Monday, 18 October 2010

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So the government has revealed what it thinks are the most serious threats to UK security and what it might do about them.

One colleague, leaving the Whitehall briefing where officials explained their layered approach, joked it was "tiers for fears".

Tier One, the gravest, included terrorism, cyber attack, a major natural disaster, or a foreign war drawing in this country.

Officials explained that "judgements had been made", in weighting the relative impact and likelihood of a whole variety of possible challenges, and this explained why others had been relegated to Tier Two or Three.

In nailing its assessments to the mast in this way, the National Security Council - itself a product of the new government, wanted to avoid accusations of producing the kind of "all shall have prizes" Whitehall paper in which every single priority within every departments is accorded a few words underlining how terribly important it is.

The downside to this approach was that the ranking of these individual threats and why, for example, the UK being nuked by a foreign power was classified as Tier Two, would become the subject of intense argument.

How far Cabinet Office judgements have been swayed by the desire to save money is open to question.

Clearly the authors would bridle at the idea that they designed their conclusions to allow budget cuts, but given the Downing Street foreword notes, "our ability to meet current and future threats depends crucially on tackling the budget deficit", they did not presumably have the option of saying that the increasingly broad range of threats they have identified require more to be spent on defence and intelligence.

The resulting judgements will be argued with by many. Terrorism or cyber attack might be very serious issues but would they really threaten UK national survival or the functioning of this society?

Even a 9/11 scale event or the shutting down of the City by cyber attack, enormous as such traumas might be, would be trivial in importance compared to a nuclear attack by a foreign state.

Obviously a nuclear attack by a foreign state is far less likely, and the government will argue that by replacing Trident they are already taking preventive measures, but such an event would threaten the survival of this country.

It is almost an axiom of defence planning that the more devastating a possible event, the less likely it is to happen, and the more expensive it is to prepare for.

It is in the area of a general insurance against unforeseen contingencies that the armed forces have functioned since the Cold War. In setting aside this idea, the National Security Council is taking deliberate, calculated, risks.

The idea of a state like Iran acquiring missiles in the future with ranges capable of hitting the UK with chemical or even nuclear warheads is quite plausible.

But the UK has no ballistic missile defences (they are horrendously expensive...) and little capability to respond short of nuclear retaliation. Deterrence, like some of the judgements in today's paper, assumes rationality on the part of opponents.

It is the very difficulty of predicting future threats that has caused history to be littered with examples of cutbacks that seemed like a good idea at the time - Britain's decision to run down tank and fighter production to almost nothing in the 1920s or a previous Conservative government's pledge to scrap the Royal Navy's carriers in 1981, less than one year before Argentina invaded the Falklands are just two that spring to mind.

For everyone's sake, we must just hope that the embrace of risk in today's paper and tomorrow's Strategic Defence and Security Review proves a little more fortunate.


  • Comment number 1.

    ..The idea of a state like Iran acquiring missiles in the future with ranges capable of hitting the UK with chemical or even nuclear warheads is quite plausible. ..

    there's the MI6 approved anti iran tub thumping. just in case we'd forgotten thta its iran we should have constant nightmares about. It'll be 45mins next. Or maybe 50mins because its a bitter further than iraq?

    Plausible? Plausible? What motive have they to attack the uk? Or are we to believe they are mad mullahs? You do question their rationality but not the uk political class that have proven their war warmongering irrationality?

    2 carriers will need the rest of the fleet just to protect them. The RN becomes a one trick pony. Carriers are only useful for vexacious foreign wars against non state actors who do not have an airforce, missiles, a navy etc. Which leaves few occasions when it would be of use. The reality is they will be used by the usa to land their aircraft on as we can't afford the planes.

    the neocons have bent the uk foreign policy to their will now they have bent the defence strategy.

    one can tell that the cuts is dogma for the tories because they never say when the finances are repaired they will also repair the cuts.

  • Comment number 2.

    What about the threat from within?...

    i.e. the threat from the free-market anarchists (aka libertarians or more accurately described as financial terrorists).

    These are the greedy people that have brought this country to its knees financially. They have bankrupted this country to such a degree that we have lost the financial ability to pay for the protection of ourselves.

    Essentialy these poeple are internationalists/cosmopolitans/non-doms. They hold NO allegience to this country. Their only allegience is to profit and money only.

    In fact they despise nation states.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think this entire "threat" thing is ridiculous - no help to anyone, except of course the the security lobby raising cash through fear.
    Since Monday an "Irish-related" attack on Britain has been "a strong possibility".
    At the same time, an al-Qaida attack is "highly likely" and "only a matter of time".
    What do these warnings mean? Who is generating them?
    We have quite a collection of late – security here, there and everywhere - all to keep people safe, scared and willing to pay taxes for protection.
    There is so much talk about "threat" that security warnings are beginning to sound like muddled background noise.
    "Threat levels", "tier levels", graded risk of attack. It seems to me that the goal may be to keep "threat" alive, or otherwise said: Keep the people afraid.
    How is an average every-day person supposed to use this information? What does the Government want Joe Blow to do?
    In the mid-1970s, the Provisional IRA caused 50 explosions in London, subjecting the city to great mayhem. Somehow we survived - WITHOUT the counter-terror apparatus that we have today. Did the British Government fall? Did we need to curtail our liberties?
    Our main threat today comes not from terrorists but from how the Government reacts to terrorists.
    There is extensive policing as well as a lobby in Britain dependent for its resources on maintaining a high level of public fear. The lobby thrives on its own failures. London on 7/7 (2005) saw the greatest ever growth in spending on security. In short, fear must be sustained if security is to make profit.
    Think about it: The west has been free of terrorist "attacks" for over the past decade. The fear lobby (security) may plead this proves the money was well spent, but was it? The cost of anti-terrorism is astronomical -including two foreign wars.
    An attack is a matter of "not if, but when", but the attacks never come. They are evidently thwarted by all this marvellous security, or so they tell us.
    This week the Police Federation chief warned that policing the Olympics would be a "great burden" because of budget cuts. His union has constantly upped the "threat: and finally won £800m for just two weeks of Olympic protection. It wants more.
    Meanwhile John Yates, Head of Specialist Operations, has declared that any cuts to his budget would be exploited by al-Qaida and "leave Britain vulnerable to terrorist attack".
    Britain's security-lobby complex is running amok. If we stop being afraid, stop running, the security-lobby complex might run right over us.

  • Comment number 4.

    How does 'an open, outward-facing nation whose political, economic and cultural authority far exceeds our size' justify FCO & British Council
    toadying up to the Uzbekh dictator by supporting a fashion show by his
    daughter? Former UK Ambassador Craig Murray has his view on that here:

  • Comment number 5.


    I presume Moore's Law applies to weaponry, as well as computers? Has this occurred to William Hague? Not an easy thing to plan for. More difficult if you are a politician - hence the name?.

  • Comment number 6.


    How many retaliatory nukes does it take to deter an irrational leader?

    Always one more - stupid.

    Oh - it's all going awfully illogical.

  • Comment number 7.


    DJ's point stands in its own right. But when your own leaders judiciously turn on you, for their own ends, defence equates to rebellion, and 1984 is upon us.

    America had a sophisticated, proven, practised defence, against just such an attack as 9/11. What they had no defence against was - abject tyranny. We are similarly vulnerable.

  • Comment number 8.

    will a dozen aircraft carriers protect us from home grown 'terrorists' from our northern cities, er, NOOOOOOO, will a new regiment protect us from civil insurrection from a union bent on a general strike er, Noooooo so can we get real have a grown up debate, pension off all the old duffers who want to play soldiers and spend all those millions and millions and millions of pounds on things we really know it makes sense....there is only us and the Yanks who care about going into foreign countries a starting wars, nobody else gives a monkey's..

  • Comment number 9.

    We are also at risk from commercial attacks. China in a position to do vast harm just by the use of its financial resources.

  • Comment number 10.

    One prediction, with the scrapping of our fixed wing naval strike force
    Argentina will try another invasion within the next five to eight years.
    it's only a matter of time before AAF require 4th Generation fighters in the - F16, Mirage 2000, Su-30- class, not as good as the 5th Generation Typhoon, but numbers will count. Argentinian forces could occupy the islands, if at some cost. without carrier air cover we could not attempt a amphibious operation to regain the Falkands.

  • Comment number 11.

    "The idea of a state like Iran acquiring missiles in the future with ranges capable of hitting the UK with chemical or even nuclear warheads is quite plausible."

    Really? Where's the evidence? It is an idea and an insane one given Irans history. The UK government and the BBC backed the coup that deposed Irans elected leader Mossadegh in 1953. It is the west that has a history of espionage, aggression, invasion, occupation and warfare against the Middle East. A recently published study found Fallujahs cancer rates are higher than after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Doctors advise women not to have children as cancers in the under 14s are 12x higher since the 2004 attacks Urban writes as though UK foreign policy were benign, even benevolent.


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